Francis Gilbert describes his experiences of being a new teacher in a tough school with vivid candour. He agreed to let me share some extracts from the book, which is well worth reading.
In a primary school I visited in my first year of teaching, children were pulling each other’s hair, tipping water on the floor, scribbling on each other’s faces and prodding each other with tongs.
In the secondary school I went to next, a boy was openly smoking in front of his teacher. He offered me a cigarette.
One teacher I observed, Jesse, seemed exhausted. He encouraged pupils to make their own films, discuss controversial topics and do anything but sit down and read and write. It was hard work, made even harder because the pupils knew he was a soft touch: they ate sweets in his lesson, swore regularly, had fights and verbal slanging matches.
My first ever lesson was with Jesse’s GCSE English class, and there was a play to read. ‘Now then,’ I said, ‘Could we have quiet, please? Could you put your hand up if you want to read?’ Everyone started shouting that they wanted a role, and then when I said they had a part they refused to take it. After ten minutes of trying to allocate roles, no one had a part. The kids were laughing and jeering at me. Sweat was beginning to seep through my shirt. I eventually got the play started, but the faltering voices were drowned out by the other kids who were still chatting very loudly. Daryl Jones was pushing and shoving the boy next to him. He shoved him so hard that his friend fell off his seat. He grinned as I approached and put his head on the desk with his eyes closed. ‘You have to follow’ I said in an angry voice. ‘Oh, f*ck off sir,’ said Jones, ‘I’m just trying to have a kip here.’ The class exploded in laughter. He had humiliated me, and there was nothing I could do.
In September, my life as a teacher in inner-city London began. After one appalling lesson with 9A, I was confused and anxious. I had 9A again that day and was none the wiser about how to teach them. I felt I only had myself to blame. I should know how to teach, I should know how to get them to behave…
‘Yer mum is a c**k-sucking whore who takes it up the bum’
‘Yer mum is a c**k-sucking bandit whore who takes it up the bum and more
‘Yer mum is a wh*re’
‘Sir, sir, Bulus just cussed my mum!’
‘He started it!’
Apart from this, my worksheet seemed to have done the trick: 9A was very noisy but nearly everyone was attempting to write the fill-in-the-gaps exercise.
A typical afternoon teaching 9A, who I’d been teaching for months now, looks like this. They are jostling against the corridor wall, prodding each other, guffawing and shouting as they wait to come into the room. One of the girls winks at me: ‘anyone tell you you’ve got a nice arse sir?’ She winks at me again. I pretend I haven’t heard. Wahid notes, ‘You got red eyes sir. Very red eyes! Anything the matter with you? You sick? You’re not infected are you?’ Others join in, ‘Red eyes! Red eyes!’ For some reason, since I started at Truss, I have suffered from red eyes. This isn’t from drinking, or form conjunctivitis; it is a Truss-related condition that neither I nor my doctor can get to the bottom of.
‘Now, 9A, I need you to listen. Could you listen please? Sharif, please could you stop hitting Bilal with your book. Your book is for reading. Jafar, don’t flick! I said no elastic bands! And stop tapping Fotik! Stop it! NOW!’ They start laughing at my explosion. Charlene snarls when I tell her to get on with the work, that it’s boring and she isn’t going to do anything. There is a tussle developing between Bulus and Mohibur. Bulus is having fun ripping off the cover of his book, rolling it into a cone and whacking Mohibur over the head with it. ‘You’re going to have to pay for that book,’ I say, realising that I wont being able to carry out this threat. Bulus shrugs and keeps hitting Mohibur. When the bell goes, the pupils suddenly disappear before I can set them imaginary homework. Homework does not happen at this school except in policy documents.
My observation feedback is this: ‘You need to do more groupwork. Their learning is far too passive at the moment.’
Another lesson began. ‘Right, now, quiet, and let’s get on with some work!’ I shouted. There were laughs. Hakim snorted and produced a pack of cigarettes. ‘If you light that I’ll have to send you out on call,’ I said. Despair and panic shot through every limb of my body. On call at Truss was a hassle and a shambles: the teacher had to log the incident in a book, and the senior team were never in attendance. Hakim lit the cigarette. The whole class jumped up and started running around the room. Then they began to move the furniture out of the room. I shouted at the top of my voice for them to stop, but it was useless. Desks, chairs and textbooks ricocheted into the corridor. ‘Want a drag?’ Hakim grinned at me.
I felt humiliated, angry and guilty. The guilt was the worst because I felt as though the whole incident was my fault. I felt so ashamed, I felt like I would never teach again.
I went to observe another English teacher. Sean Carson’s class was an oasis of calm and quiet. Sean was a disciplinarian. The riotous behaviour of the same students didn’t happen in his class. He never did any groupwork. In his view, the kids would just muck around. Pupils were either reading or writing. Amid the turbulence of inner-city London, he had built a world of peace. How did he do it? He had clocked up twenty years of teaching experience.
The thought of 9A last thing on a Friday filled me with dread. Yumin was forever jumping up and down and found it impossible to sit in his seat. Bilal asked me awkward questions about my private life: ‘have you ever had sex, sir? When did you last do it?’ Shadi told tales about gang fights and drug-running. I never got a grip on the class during that first year.
Slowly, there were days when I was able to talk without being interrupted at the beginning of lessons. Sometimes I could even get the children to work in silence. Little notes, though, were still being passed around the room.
In a nearby classroom, there were scenes of malign pandemonium, the behaviour malicious and angry. The kids were throwing things at the boards, turning over tables, sweeping Bunsen burners off tables, smashing test tubes and fighting each other.
I wanted to move on.